“Where are my guns?” demanded Pancho Villa, flamboyant bandit-warrior of the Mexican revolution. Though he had paid for them, the store across the U.S. border in the town of Columbus, New Mexico hadn’t delivered. He had other grievances as well. So in the early morning of March 9, l916, Villa led some 500 troops in an attack on Columbus that lasted until dawn, without doing too much damage. Next day, General John J. Pershing, of World War I fame, accompanied by George Patton, hero of World War II, arrived to drive out the Villistas and pursue their leader into Mexico. They didn’t catch him. He was eventually assassinated by other Mexicans in some kind of political intrigue.

Until now this was Columbus’s main claim to fame. Today, it’s been overtaken by another gun sale. In March last year federal agents drove into Columbus and arrested virtually all its top officials, including the mayor and police chief, for selling weapons to the Mexican cartels, who thereafter used them to kill other Mexicans, which is their habit. The arrests were no real surprise to Columbus citizens, who wondered why Mayor Eddie Espinoza had been driving a $50,000 car on a $700-a-month salary. Police Chief Angelo Vega already had a criminal record. In this town, says Addison Bachman, who runs a website reporting on local events in Columbus, “You get a job with a rap sheet, not a resume.”

The dozen offenders have all pleaded guilty. The mayor has received 51 months in prison, and two others have also been sentenced. The rest await their punishment, which seems slow in coming—and in the meantime, one has escaped. Yet another, police officer Ian Garland, claims agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives encouraged him to sell the weapons to the cartels.

What’s that? Shades of “Fast and Furious,” the Arizona operation that delivered some 2,500 U.S. guns to the cartels, with no explanation yet forthcoming. It has led to a D.C. tussle with the Republican House citing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress and the Democrats crying “witch hunt.” Lost in the tumult is the heart of the matter: what were U.S. agents doing with those guns?

The White House says the goal was to track the guns to the cartel leaders. What then? Drop a drone on them, only to have them replaced by any of dozens of other eager mobsters lusting for the job. “You cut off one head and [another] hydra head emerges,” says James Phelps, assistant professor of border and homeland security at San Angelo University in Texas.

But there are no signs that agents were doing any tracking. A different explanation is gaining ground: that the feds were helping to arm one cartel, Sinaloa, against more sinister ones like Los Zetas, whose trademark is a severed head on a pike. Many of the latter’s members have had military training in Mexico, some in the United States. They are well equipped for violence and have inflicted some of it in this country. Better to have a comparatively benign cartel facing us.

Dealing with any cartel has its risks. Guns from Fast and Furious have been used to kill U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry and who knows how many Mexicans. Meanwhile, Los Zetas is still going strong. A trial of the Columbus gang could reveal what operations like Fast and Furious are all about. But then, there will be no trial since the prisoners have pleaded guilty, no doubt in exchange for appropriate bargains from prosecutors. The cover-up continues.

In a borderless war, it’s hard to know what’s what or who’s who. “Nothing is black and white,” says Raymond Cobos, sheriff of Luna County, which includes Columbus. With little available work on the border that pays more than a pittance, crooked money is too tempting, says former Border Patrolman David Ham: “Wherever there’s a connection to the border, look for trouble.” But be careful not to talk about it, cautions Columbus activist Karen Lee. “There’s no freedom of speech on the border. To survive is to say nothing.”

“We are a microcosm,” says Addison Bachman, who in addition to running his website is minister of the Promised Land Community Church in Columbus. Small as it is, Columbus is ground zero for the drug runners. Robert Plumlee, a former contract pilot for the CIA, notes that Los Zetas has acquired property in the Columbus area, where it stores arms and drugs destined for anywhere in the United States. Little stands in its way, certainly not media coverage.

We read continually of arrests of small-timers with pockets of marijuana. But the big guys? Not much. A notable exception is a recent New York Times article revealing that Los Zetas used drug money to buy a large ranch in Oklahoma with 300 quarter horses for which they paid a million dollars a month. One of them recently won a major race in New Mexico. This enterprise was broken up by the U.S. Justice Department. Michael Vigil, a former top DEA official, tells the Times, “The Zetas are particularly adroit at spreading their tentacles across borders.”

The cartels’ vast network reaches into the United States, concentrating in hundreds of larger cities but increasingly in smaller towns as well. They prefer areas with a Mexican population where they can blend in. Federal lawmen estimate there are more people working for the cartels in the United States than in Mexico, and they are busier than ever. While the number of illegal immigrants has dropped dramatically, far more drugs are arriving, and with them the cartel bosses, among the most vicious people on earth.

They don’t always look the part, say those who get to see them. They may be smooth, suave, just the gentleman next door who donates generously to churches and charities. Let the thuggish underlings handle the rough stuff. But these bosses should not be underrated or misunderstood. They are not here just to make money. They also seek power. “Money is a manifestation of power,” says Robert Odom, recently retired deputy sheriff of Columbus. Since they have taken over much of Mexico, why not a much larger prize to the north? There’s a challenge.

Money more than weapons paves the way—just another interest group buying up politicians and other worthies on the path to a narco-state. While wars in the Middle East and South Asia bear scant relevance to the national interest, this is the real war within that can be truly destructive to the country. But we’re not really fighting it. Most Americans are not even aware of it.

The citizens of Columbus, however, have been left bankrupt by the cartels, with some in danger of their lives. Ordinarily the drug lords don’t like to harm Americans. It’s bad publicity. But they make an exception for lawmen they can’t corrupt and who continue to fight them. Before they were arrested, crooked town officials threatened to kill Deputy Odom. Twice police chief Vega tried to run him off the road at night. They are gone now and unlikely to return from prison: since they’ve been talking to the feds, the cartels would make short work of them. But their families remain with the prospect of the cartels’ revenge no doubt in mind.

“The raid has swept out some of the dark corners,” says Odom, but more light is needed. He adds that the cartels are not operating openly in Columbus. They’re discreet and quiet at the moment. But crossing the border is hazardous for a lawman whose face is known. It could mean courting death or worse. The cartels are skilled at torture, like dismembering a victim while he is still alive. “You’ve got to understand the new reality,” says Odom.

Corruption on the U.S. side of the border now rivals that in Mexico, thanks in part to the rapid hiring of anti-terrorist personnel after 9/11 without sufficient background check. The Los Angeles Times reports that in the last eight years 130 U.S. Border Patrol agents have been arrested and 600 more are under investigation. “We take this kind of thing for granted in Mexico,” says Odom. “That’s history. We’re immune from history, right?”

Sheriff Cobos, now in charge of the Columbus police, is a Mexican American of staunch visage and candid speech—not to be easily crossed. His grandfather joined Pancho Villa’s invasion, though unlike his chief he decided to stay in America and make his way. Sheriff Cobos says he was so strictly brought up—“I was told if I looked at a girl the wrong way she would get pregnant”—that he was invited to teach anti-crime, anti-drug classes at a Mormon settlement in Mexico.

He wonders why we can’t secure the border. Other nations with fewer resources have managed this. It would cost a fraction of the war in Afghanistan. He’s dubious of federal law enforcement and suggests a better acronym for the DEA; “Don’t Expect Anything.” Why did the feds wait so long to arrest the town fathers, he asks, when they had ample evidence in front of them? A federal agent informed Deputy Odom: “We don’t necessarily trust local law enforcement.” Replied Odom: “I’m not offended because I don’t trust you, either.”

Sometimes it’s not altogether clear who the enemy is. We had a drug-running, gun-running operation that didn’t seem to interest authorities, says Bachman. Are they pursuing some other plan we don’t know about? “We’re kept in suspense.”

Today law enforcement in Columbus seems to be in good hands, and life is more or less back to normal in a town where most amenities are in easy walking distance. A library is especially well supplied. There’s a Pancho Villa state park that people enjoy, except perhaps for the name. No sign of rudeness or anxiety amid a friendly population of only 2,000. House and car doors are left unlocked. There’s no street crime. More than that, people are loyal to their town. Because of its empty treasury (a million dollars was lost to the gun-runners), many town employees are working for no pay until the not-too-sympathetic county offers some money or takes over the municipality.

That includes the firemen who double as ambulance drivers. They are required to pick up anyone who has a medical emergency on the border. Many pregnant Mexican women show up so they can bear their children in the United States, where they automatically become citizens. Columbus’s new mayor, Nicole Lawson, sidelines as an ambulance assistant and has helped deliver 24 newborn Americans. “Our town spirit has been crushed by the arrests,” she says, but apparently not hers.

Three miles down the road is the Mexican border town of Palomas, somewhat larger and livelier than Columbus, but not as lively as it used to be. A few years back there was considerable violence that ended when one cartel managed to oust its rivals and restored the peace in its own way, a sort of Pax Narcotica. Today tourists still shy away because of past troubles, but a number of Americans come for inexpensive dentistry and glasses. “How do you like these teeth?”, an American asked, pointing to some replacements. Like new, I said. Amid the many shops, in deference to the past, there’s a statue of Pancho Villa charging on horseback. Never say die.

People go back and forth across the border. Some 300 students, most of whom are U.S. citizens, cross each day to go to school in Columbus or 30 miles further north in Deming. This presents a problem. Some inevitably are given drugs to carry. At no age do you refuse a cartel request, and not everyone can be searched. And cartel cash is addictive. “Once you’ve started taking money, there’s no way to stop taking it,” says Deputy Odom. Don’t want to cooperate? Well, we know when your kid leaves school and … you get the point. A school bus driver was arrested for transporting drugs along with children. With that human cargo, it was easy for him to get through checkpoints. Sheriff Cobos never ceases to marvel at the tactics of the cartels. “If only they could put all that energy and ingenuity into something useful like curing cancer.”

Those who closely follow the drug war are increasingly dismayed by the way it’s fought. Guns don’t stop drugs. Eliminate the narcotics in one place, they move to another. Money determines. Don Wirth, a former senior special agent with the Department of Interior, told the Tucson Weekly in May that the war is a “tremendous waste of the country’s resources. We’ve spent billions fighting that stuff and haven’t made a dent. And the violence escalates. This is unusual for somebody in law enforcement to say, but we’re never going to win the drug war. We need other approaches.”

The best approach, some say, is to legalize drugs, at least marijuana, which comprises anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of cartel earnings. That would free lawmen to concentrate on the harder but smaller drugs and human smuggling (often for prostitution). In an interview with Truthout, Ethan Nadelman, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says, “a law enforcement strategy cannot defeat a dynamic global commodities market. So as long as there is demand, there will be supply. Attempts at interdiction just move the drug trafficking around, wreaking havoc in its wake.”

Border towns have to live with that havoc, facing incursions of a kind far more dangerous than Pancho Villa’s. What does the future hold for Columbus? Addison Bachman suggests making something of the past—and what a past it is: a town that repelled a very rare invasion of America, launched by one of its most colorful enemies. Maybe statues to Pershing and Patton could be erected to accompany Villa’s. But yesterday’s enemies are now friends in a closely integrated society: for all intents, Palomas and Columbus are one. This is an invisible gem that needs the right kind of exposure, says Bachman.

So Americans, come on down and enjoy yourselves. But please, no drugs or guns.

Ed Warner is a former editor-reporter for the Voice of America.